A couple of thoughts about Toronto Life’s big feature on Sidewalk Labs. First, it’s nice to see that the magazine doesn’t even bother with the fiction that Sidewalk Labs is anything more than the urban-policy arm of Google. Sidewalk Labs and Google are sister companies under the Alphabet label in the same way that the NBC and General Electric of 30 Rock were subsidiaries of the Sheinhardt Wig Company: in every policy way that matters, Sidewalk Labs is a Google concern, and Quayside a Google project.
But what was even more interesting was the distribution of opinions. If this package of bite-sized opeds is anything to go by, Sidewalk Labs is having a great deal of difficulty attracting independent expert supporters who don’t have either direct or personal connections to the company.
Of the 17 opeds (the first piece is a scene-setter), nine raise the pro-Sidewalk Labs flag:
- Three paid consultants (Joe Berridge, Ken Greenberg and Alexander Josephson);
- Three members of an odd entity called the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council (Mohamed Lachemi, Robert Prichard and Kwame McKenzie – and no, the fact that you don’t get paid for this gig doesn’t eliminate the conflict of interest); and
- Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff.
Only one article, by Toronto Region Board of Trade CEO and president Jan De Silva, is written by someone who is in any sense truly independent from Sidewalk Labs.
Another pro-Sidewalk Labs oped, by University of Toronto professor Richard Florida, whom previous reports have linked to the Council but whose Toronto Life byline does not include this affiliation, is more character reference for Daniel L. Doctoroff, who he’s “known … for the better part of two decades,” and the past records of “key members of the Sidewalk team,” than an actual assessment of the merits of Doctoroff’s actual plan. More on that below.
What’s more, the pro-Sidewalk Labs side is remarkably uncritical. Some of the critical opeds (those by Yung Wu and Bruce Kuwabara, who reminds us that the fact that wood rots may complicate Sidewalk Labs’ timber skyscraper plans – wish I’d caught that one) point out some things they like in the Master Innovation and Development Plan. However, none of the Sidewalk Seven plus Florida breathe a critical word about this multifaceted, multi-billion-dollar development. (Joe Berridge comes closest when he notes that “We don’t know yet what the real construction cost reductions are going to be, or what operational problems may arise,” but he concludes that this is a standard issue that every city faces.)
The illusion of consultation: The Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council
Regarding those connections to Sidewalk Labs, the paid-consultant conflict of interest is obvious. But what, some of you may be asking, is the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council?
Great question, and one that is actually incredibly difficult to answer. Basically, as Amanda Roth of The Logic reports, it’s a Sidewalk Labs-only initiative, started in October 2018, of “leading thinkers’ from the business, non-profit and academic sectors” to advise “Sidewalk Labs directly on the Quayside development.”
Beyond that, it seems to have been designed to give the illusion of consultation, as opposed to actually serving as some type of independent body. Sidewalk Labs has not published a list of who is on this “Advisory Council” – The Logic says that Sidewalk Labs “declined to provide a full list of who attended” the first meeting. (See also this Globe and Mail report by Josh O’Kane.) It promised to hold three meetings, in October 2018, and January and April 2019, but only released notes (which themselves read like press releases) that I could find on the first two. I could find only three documents about this Advisory Council on Sidewalk Toronto’s website.
Also very odd: “Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council” yields only 30 hits on Google, only 19 of which were working, and none of which link to actual Sidewalk Labs documents (SL does show up once, in a link that takes you to an empty page). Most of the links are to opeds by self-declared Council members or to articles and tweets by Bianca Wylie trying to make sense of it all.
Those Sidewalk Labs’ Council documents? I found them by scrolling through Sidewalk Toronto’s pointlessly difficult-to-use documents page. Don’t believe me that its document depository is not designed to help people get into the details of this project? Check it out for yourself, but beware of the leopard.
To state the obvious, publicizing who’s giving you advice from a formal “Council” (to say nothing of reported minutes) is the absolutely bare minimum standard required for the most basic kind of transparency and accountability. That is, if you’re a company that’s interested in those type of things.
In contrast, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which is an actual independent advisory panel, publishes its members’ name, has a published mandate, runs meetings and publishes its meetings results. Waterfront Toronto does not deploy these panel members to defend Waterfront Toronto or comment on Sidewalk Labs.
Comparing Sidewalk Labs’ Council with Waterfront Toronto’s Panel, it’s hard to disagree with Bianca Wylie’s contention that Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council is little more than “‘an influencer strategy’ … a marketing strategy to borrow [one’s] name/reputation/credentials and lend them to this process and project.” A Potemkin Council, if you will.
Bringing a character reference to a policy debate
While there’s little that’s surprising in either the Sidewalk proponents or opponents’ comments (give or take a rotting timber skyscraper), Richard Florida’s stood out, and not just for the extent to which it was built around a character reference for Doctoroff and “key members of the Sidewalk team.” At this point, with the 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan in hand, we don’t need a character reference. We need to know if these smart people have developed a good plan. So talk about the plan. Please.
On this point, it doesn’t help that Florida’s only engagement with the actual content of the report – beyond noting that urban tech is a potent future economic engine – consists of one of the weirdest defences of Sidewalk Labs I’ve yet come across:
Sidewalk has been plagued by privacy concerns, but these are issues that apply to any company that has access to our data—like mobile phone providers or Uber or the Gmail accounts we use every day. Unlike those companies, Sidewalk has pledged to help solve these problems by setting up mechanisms like a public data trust, an independent agency tasked with safeguarding the public good while fostering innovation (emphasis added).
I’m not sure what mental gymnastics one has to perform in order to claim that Sidewalk Lab, a Google company whose economic plan is largely built around bringing Google to Toronto, should be trusted because, unlike Google, a Google company that is attempting to get into the urban-governance business via Sidewalk Labs, it has a plan for dealing with data privacy. If anything, Sidewalk Labs’ intimate links to Google, a company whose profits depend on ubiquitous data-gathering, should make us wonder how credible Sidewalk Labs’ data-related promises actually are.
While that defence is … strange … it’s Florida’s claim that Sidewalk Labs should be trusted because it “has pledged to help solve these problems” that’s the real head-scratcher. Entering into an election season, we’re about to get a whole slew of reminders of how trivially easy it is to promise to do something. The devil, as always, is in the details. Florida seems to be content that at least Sidewalk Labs is proposing something that sounds good.
The details, which are right in front of us, are much less reassuring. Let’s start with the fact that Sidewalk Labs is proposing an “urban data trust,” not a “public data trust,” as Florida calls it. Subbing “public” for “urban” is a small but important detail, beyond the fact that “urban” is the correct term here. As Shoshana Zuboff notes in her contribution to this series, the Sidewalk Labs-invented term “urban data” does a lot of heavy lifting for the company, allowing for the collection of a lot of personal data in public spaces.
Dr. Natasha Tusikov and I (among others) have raised several concerns about the, um, problematic aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ data-collection/digital plans. If you don’t want to take our word that Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP digital/data plans are phenomenally underbaked, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel is also not satisfied with the way that Sidewalk Labs has handled these issues (p. 16):
Overall, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals in many areas.
Further information is required to show how digital innovations will support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside.
The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners.
A reminder: Sidewalk Labs had two years and 1,500 pages to get these fundamental details right, or even to include them. They didn’t, or couldn’t. That reality, I’d think, is even more relevant to judging Sidewalk Labs than the pedigree of Doctoroff’s résumé.
Wanted: Independent analysis
It’s definitely fair game to note, as the Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore has, that Toronto Life pretty much stacked the deck with people already linked and beholden to Sidewalk Labs, but, man. If the only people I could find to say good things about a project are people who have a financial interest in it, are already working with Sidewalk Labs, or are providing a character reference when there’s a report right in front of them, I’d wonder about the quality of the project.
And rightly so. As I’ve concluded from my 50-plus-post slog through the MIDP, this proposal is fatally flawed. It does not stand up to independent scrutiny. It’s not only a mess; it’s an obvious mess.
My bet is, if you surveyed independent subject experts who are not connected to either Sidewalk Labs or Google about this project, the vast majority would raise serious concerns with it.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for an independent view on Sidewalk Labs’ plan, or if you just want to read something that goes deeper into it than the necessarily superficial Toronto Life takes, you can always check out my numerous posts dissecting it, page by page. You don’t have to read all of them: any one of these posts will give you an idea of the quality and intention of this project.